Archive | March, 2012

Telling Stories – in Teaching, throughout Learning, for Education – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 6

19 Mar

Stories are effective teaching tools. They show how context can mislead people to make wrong decisions. Stories illustrate causal relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight the unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems.

Dan & Chip Heath, Made to Stick

When we teach we tell stories about the world. Some are scientific, some historical, some philosophical, and so on.

Jo Ann Pagano, “Moral Fictions”
in The Stories Lives Tell: Using Narrative in Education

Telling Stories?

If I’m to engage you in thinking about ways in which Telling Stories can be integral to sticky learning through teaching that sticks…

Do I open here by telling the story about an advocate of engaged learning – now 30 years into a career combining teaching (undergraduate and graduate courses) and professional development leadership – who twice, as that person recalls, dropped an undergraduate course because it included group testing components?

Or do you think I might do better starting out with the story about the person who earned a second masters degree and a doctorate after failing two of four components for the required written exams of a first masters degree?

Maybe I could tell a “science leaver’s” story – the one about being told to stop asking “soft side” questions so the class could focus on the technical questions that would be on the exam.

Perhaps the stories can wait. Let’s start by setting out how I – the one who avoided group testing, who failed two of four segments in an English masters degree, who asked context and communication questions rather than technical one in my college biology and math courses – have come to use, to mean, story here.


What happened – the organized, even plotted, linking together of information, ideas and insights, this is narrative. At least for the purposes of this posting. Humans shape initial meanings by creating a narrative, making decisions about what information links together, whether elements of what we’ve observed and believed will remain or be remade or be relinquished in what we have come to know. Piecing together a narrative helps us to reflect on which ideas now “make sense.” A narrative exemplifies one of Mark Twain’s rules of writing: it accomplishes something and arrives somewhere.

To be frank, narrative as a rhetorical form tends to elicit the same response from me as the five-paragraph theme in school writing, the inverted pyramid in journalism, and the sage on the stage in public or classroom lectures: I know my brain goes wandering shortly after the opener, too often I am wrestling with one bit of information in the midst of the many assembled to support an idea – caught on the wrong side of the buttress: outside the lecture, the buttress a wall between the narrative and my own brain aiming to make sense of things.

You’ve been there, too – as speaker and as listener – wondering not just “What did I miss?” You, too, have listed each gathered What hoping to discover a What? – some sort of stimulating and simulating question around which to build a story inviting you to think along with, because of, with, for, through, after which, in order to – to formulate ideas as you parse and synthesize information.

Narrative sets out how an “I” thinks. Narratives belong primarily to those telling. Narratives do exemplify the simple and concrete principles by selecting and ordering information.


Story – story builds from narrative, incorporates “the perspective of someone’s life and in the context of someone’s emotions” (Learning through Storytelling in Higher Education, 32). Story, from this perspective, invigorates the rich study and contexts the remarkable passion we bring to what we research and teach.

Story engages cognitive and affective, word and image, storyteller and listener, context-setting and meaning-making. Stories can become bridges between what the Heaths call “The Curse of Knowledge” (when we as teachers forget, or opt to not remember, what it’s like to not know) and what I call “The Curse of Not Knowing” (when we as students or teachers are afraid of risking the necessary tactile and powerful affective encounters with what we don’t know).

Stories are not always personal, as in coming from one’s own life – they may come from headlines, from parables, from novels or movies or comics or blogs currently being read locally, nationally, internationally across generations. And stories are always personal, as in resonating personally with people, so that in listening we are stimulated to consider, and in that move through picturing how ideas come together into simulating – rehearsing, enacting as we think – those specifics in making sense of an abstract. Stories drawn from headlines or from our own lives range in size and depth from small slivers to strands of experiences to larger chunks, each offering opportunities for listeners to lean and learn into the course content as stories stimulate and simulate thinking.

Engaging in story making – as tellers/speakers and as listeners/interpreters – is about learning.

James Zull points out that the brain requires pillars of data gathering, creating, reflecting and testing in order to do the work of learning: to sort, connect, retain, organize, reject, integrate information. There is a biological story in that process.

Stephen Brookfield schematizes adult learning as a process building upon four capacities: dialectical/dialogical thinking, engagement in practical logic, attending to meta-cognition, and reflection rich in perspective taking. There is a social cultural story in that process.

Frank Coffield defines learning as involving “significant changes in capability, understanding, knowledge, practices, attitudes or values by individuals, groups, organisations or society.” There is a political, organizational story in that process.

You know stories. You are simulated by stories about your discipline, stories within your own research, stories about the impact of your research, stories translating what you have learned, unlearned and relearned, stories of meaning making as these link you to your mentors and to your students. You know stories also as sparking mental simulation, creating opportunities for learning, as the Heaths point out, by using story telling to make space for listeners’ rehearsals of cognitive and affective processes necessary for problem solving and mental practice – the next best thing to doing.

Story sets out how that “I” thinks in, through, because of (insert other prepositions here) some persons or contexts or experiences that the “I” invites into the story through all of the sticky principles – the complexity set forth by simple and concrete means, with developments within the core story that are unexpected, credible and emotional, if also embellishments. Story allows listeners to belong, also, to the story.

Telling Stories 1

Teachers in higher education who write about using story as a tool in teaching for learning seem to converge on these three story types offered by Dan and Chip Heath as organizers of stories for teaching and learning:

Connection Plot. Select and develop stories as part of teaching for learning to engage students in stimulating and simulating ways of knowing about disciplinary content, concepts and concerns. This plot aims for bridging of a gap, attending to new ideas and normalizing resistance as a component of learning that comes when beliefs, values and previously gathered information are challenged. Think of connection plot as an arc of Learn – Unlearn – Relearn.

I am, indeed, that college student who was asked to not ask how a chemistry principle related to baking, to not ask whether local farm chemicals had an impact on human biology, and to not ask how the math we just learned could have a statistical use for someone studying cultural anthropology. My high school science teachers used stories – from their lives, about researchers they had studied, about local communities, from newspaper headlines, because of student questions, and within planned presentations as well as spontaneous devices to engage parallel problem-solving when a classroom reached conceptual roadblocks – to connect us to ways of applying and extending the foundational knowledge we studied across STEM courses. These teachers make use of knowing-what in service of knowing-how. Sometimes the stories were woven into presentations – food preparation often in the chemistry class sessions; maths linked to social issues; biology lessons framed by newspaper stories and lives of those within the high school

  • Why tell this story? When I teach undergraduate students, I ask them to look for ways of linking what we study to other courses they are taking or have taken, and if not that, then to questions that come with them across the classroom doorway. I collect short writings early in the semester about those connections and questions – based on what they have learned in and about the course so far; I draw on their questions and connections to shape stories for classroom presentations – mine and theirs.
  • In teaching Preparing Future Faculty courses – and in working with faculty peers and colleagues – I may shape the story elements as a connection story that invites future faculty to think about why friends from school who were good learners fell away from courses and areas of studies my PFF students now pursue. Seldom do my students characterize those friends who were “leavers” of particular disciplines as not smart or as unmotivated or as disinterested. Nor do they hear my story as exemplifying those characteristics. With connections to storied people, my own future faculty students look for ways to engage learning rather than weed learners, to assemble a range of assignments robust enough for the range of learners motivated to excel. Through their STEM-focused networks like CIRTL – Center for the Integration, Research, Teaching and Learning – they become aware, too, of how disciplines construct stories of success: Telling Stories about Engineering: Group Dynamic and Resistance to Diversity, for example.

Telling Stories 2

Creativity Plot. Think of Newton, the apple and gravity. Think of Alan Turing or Ada Lovelace and the guy down the street who created the app you use every day – all those who build from code breaking to create new modes of communication. Imagine how you would cast The Tech and Science behind Little Red Riding Hood. The creativity plot stimulates novel thinking, problem solving, seeing something with new eyes; engages us in undoing troublesome knots and enacting break throughs to levels of meaning only implicit without the work of critical reflection, dialogue, and examination. All of which come from leaning into a story, traveling and unraveling as if that character and then entering into thinking as oneself with others as part of unraveling our very own complex, wicked, ill-defined problems.

And, yes, of course, I am that advocate of engage learning who as an upper division student dropped – never to enroll and complete the course – an undergraduate course that included group testing components. On its own, this isn’t a great story for either the first year undergraduates or the graduate students and postdocs in PFF courses. It might be an interesting narrative given the ways and whys of learning in either set of courses. But the story’s not about the test, it’s about:

  • not trusting the people who were my classmates, who would – some of them – become part of a class team with me;
  • learning about the group test in the first week of a course – but not doing any work that week that required working in groups, not for discussion of readings, not to dig into a case study, not to take an early quiz;
  • knowing some of the folks in the class from being part of the campus student leadership “hierarchy” and wondering whether it would be safe in the group to show my personal dissents – whether to the topic or the course.

So why tell this story on the first day of a class?

For my graduate courses, it’s a reminder to them – and to me – that I know being in a new learning environment is scary. And learning about learning tends to be newer and scarier than learning about teaching for PFF students. It’s a moment from which to build trust during the first 15 minutes of the course as I engage them in a course-specific problem-solving activity that happens in groups with follow up individual reflection on the group activity then cross-group conversation about the topic then a full class interactive presentation in which we all discuss what learning will look like in this course. Telling this story is also about letting my future faculty students know that I did talk with my own teacher about my discomfort with group testing – without that conversation I wouldn’t have gotten to the critical reflection about what shaped my fears. With that conversation I began talking about learning and teaching in a way that opened me to thinking about creating a culture of learning in every classroom.

For my undergraduate courses it’s also about building trust, but also to introduce a discussion about how people – in general – learn, it moves us into discussions about learning – definitionally, developmentally, cognitively and affectively, and into acknowledging the roles of tension, conflict, and confusion in processes of learning.

Telling Stories 3

Challenge Plot. The Heaths set out David and Goliath as the classic example of a plot involving daunting obstacles and characters who preserver, take action, dismantle barriers so that something significantly wrong is righted, so that dangers of telling single stories are replaced by a weave of multiple, simultaneous, overlapping stories – which provide a stronger foundation for meeting next challenges (and a foundation that itself might well be further challenged, reshaped by new stories).

I was a first generation college student who continued onto graduate school “success story.” I taught full time across two departments while completing two degrees. Throughout the run, I worked at a local industrial spray painting factory where my father was the foreman. (If you have a Johnson fishing reel or boat motor from the 1980s, I was there doing quality control.) In the summers, I also taught English and Journalism within the Upward Bound Program for public school students who would become first generation college students, and worked in a candy-making factory with those students producing salted nut rolls to then sell at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.

The elements of narrative would include these details: In June 1986 – the summer of exams, thesis revisions, building final savings for PhD school by living again at home with my parents – I failed two components of my masters exams – the American Literature review and the American Authors analysis – while passing the British Literature review and the Literary Criticism analysis. Nobody expected that. Okay, maybe I expected the fail while handing over the exam word documents: those tests required (1) identification of select passages, naming author and text with short analysis of significance in light of literary canon; and (2) discussion of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Thoreau in their social contexts. Never good at memorization and not yet adept at recognizing cues that would have signaled “their social context” as meaning in comparison to one another rather than in terms of “social context” as linking them to the local world of writers – including, gasp, women writers – addressing shared cultural and political moments.

The structure of story comes from these two moments: My dad – Pops – coming home to find me sobbing, then venturing three times from the safety of his chair in the kitchen to where I was sat in the living room, posing a single question in each trip. The first two I answered in the minute, the third drew me into the kitchen with Pops for beers and conversation:

  • What happened?
  • Will you be okay to teach tomorrow?
  • Do you think that maybe your teachers failed you? You know, that they let you down?

Why tell that story?
When my future faculty students hear this story we’re four to five weeks into the semester and they’ve engaged learning as a topic, as a companion to teaching, as a select set of activities that showcase active learning and engaged teaching. They’ve also, by this time, made abundantly clear why and in what ways they still fear students. They’ve already learned, also, that I had been the student they feared – and here we were traveling together. Our conversations and my presence indicated that my teachers and I had figured something out, that we had somehow succeeded in that teaching and learning journey. They knew the classroom success stories of my own students learning to learn, about how I drew on mentor teachers to recognize and circle into the classroom ways of learning in other ways, and that I consider the foundation of my success in teaching to be that I know how to make good use of students’ multiple strengths and engaged them in learning some new ones to successfully meet my decidedly high student learning expectations.

It is Pops’ words that make the story: Maybe your teachers failed you. That shapes a question for our discussion – (How) Did my teachers fail me? This is a rich case study for taking on the principles of universal and multicultural and aligned course design. As that graduate student, I had completed course work with high expectations about analytical thinking and development of original ideas that could be used in the discipline. The pedagogical modeling of my core teachers eschewed memorization in favor of agility and collaboration in finding passages from which to profile an author’s style and place specific pieces of writing in communities of writers. My high stakes exams had depended on memorization of passages in one case, and was build upon a tacit set of expectation to contain – to put a gate around what counted as – analysis. There was no alignment. The case requires future faculty to embrace – analyse, understand, explore and explode – the contraries in that situation. It always sparks a rousing discussion about fear, hidden curriculum, gate keeping, “smart” as always subjective, and wise reflection in considering what all can be learn from this – about schools, about learning, about smart assessment, and about how grow alongside generations of students.

And it’s that I share the narrative that makes it a story for my undergraduate students. They unravel, as it did my Upward Bound students, failure in learning, and in teaching: What is failure? Who defines it? What happens when you slant that failure as something from which to learn? How do teachers fail – let down – their students, and why do we not talk about those complications?

Whatever the story I structure into courses, presentations, consultations, assignments I do seem to end with this question: What are you going to do about it? It’s the question from my Grandmother Hannah that threads through my life, my teaching, my learning, my activism.

What are the stories you could tell about yourself as a learner, in the process of learning, as a discoverer of insights, as a writer of analysis and theory, as someone circling back to learn, unlearn and relearn rather than succumb to the Curses of Knowledge and Not Knowing?


  • SUCCESS in Teaching – An Introduction and a First Principle, Simple
  • Active Learning will not (in itself) lead to SUCCESS in Teaching – Part 2, Unexpected
  • Engineering Concrete Footings: Foundations for Sound Pedagogy – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 3,Concrete
  • Incredible! – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 4,Credible
  • Teaching with Emotion: Approaches Across the Disciplines – SUCCESS in Teaching, Part 5
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